History Vs. Podcast Episode 2: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Time

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s a chilly day in February 1877, and Theodore Roosevelt, a freshman at Harvard, is busy. Very, very busy. He wakes up at 7:30 and breakfasts on “hot biscuits, toast, chops or beef steak, and buckwheat cakes.”

After breakfast, he reviews notes from his classes—he’s taking classical literature; composition and translation in Greek, Latin, and German; trigonometry and geometry; physics; and chemistry.

At 10 a.m. he eagerly digs into his mail, reviewing the day’s letters, perhaps dashing off a few rapid-fire replies.

From 11 a.m. to noon he attends Latin recitation, after which he heads to the gym to train for an upcoming boxing match in the lightweight division at Harvard.

Next, lunch, where there is a “free fight” that sends a fellow student under the table, prompting threats of expulsion from a Mrs. Morgan.

After lunch, there is more studying and more recitation until late into the afternoon.

In the evening he dines with a Mr. and Mrs. Tudor, writing later that he had “a very pleasant home-like time.”

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and this week’s episode is TR versus Time.

Roosevelt once declared, “I have already lived and enjoyed as much of life as any nine other men I know,” and it’s true—it’s hard to think of another person who accomplished as much as TR did, even though he was working with 24 hours in the day, just like the rest of us.

Cal Newport: This is the crazy thing. The busiest job you can imagine is being the president of the United States, and even in that job, he felt like he had too much downtime.

That’s Cal Newport, author of the books Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He first read about TR’s feats of productivity in historian Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was home-schooled for most of his life, because he was too weak to go to regular school, but he thrived under the strict schedule set by the Dresden family he lived with in Germany for five months in 1873.

It’s perhaps this time in Germany that formed TR’s lifelong obsession with a schedule. Each day, he would get up at 6:30, eat breakfast until 7:30, then study until 12:30. Then he’d have lunch, study until 3, and enjoy free time until tea at 7. After that, it was studying until 10, then bed. He wrote to his father, Thee, “It is harder than I have ever studied before in my life, but I like it for I really feel that I am making considerable progress.”

When he had to take some time off after an asthma attack, he insisted that his tutors work him extra hard to make up what he had missed. When he was 15, the Roosevelts returned to the States, and TR took up with another tutor, this time with an ambitious goal: Get into Harvard in the fall of 1876, which meant passing the entrance exams in the summer of ‘75.

Roosevelt had a year and a half to cram, and he studied six to eight hours every day. His tutor, Arthur Cutler, later wrote, “The young man never seemed to know what idleness was.”

According to author David McCullough, in that time Roosevelt accomplished what normally took three years, and he passed his preliminary Harvard entrance exams in July 1875.

TR kept just as busy while he was at Harvard, where he lived in a boarding house off campus because the dorms were considered not ideal for his asthma.

He joined a number of clubs: He wrote in his diary that he was “Librarian of the Porcellian, Secretary of the Pudding, Treasurer of the O.K., Vice President of the Natural History Soc., President of the A.D.Q. [and] Editor of the Advocate." He was also a member of the Glee Club, although he didn’t sing. He taught Sunday School. He took dance class but avoided going to the theater, because “I don’t care for it, and it might hurt my eyes.”

He read incessantly, at a rate of two to three pages a minute. He boxed and wrestled and hiked. He courted the ladies and had an active social life. He studied as much as 36 hours a week. And in between that, he found time to write two works on ornithology and begin a book that would later be placed on every Navy ship, The Naval War of 1812. In the words of one classmate, TR was “forever at it.”

Cal: This is someone who was taking issues of productivity to new levels.

According to Morris, TR got through such huge amounts of work due to “iron self-discipline” that had become a habit. He spent just a quarter of the day at his desk, but he concentrated so hard, and read so rapidly, that he could take more time off than most other students. But even his time off was not that restful. It was packed with activity.

Newport was so inspired by Morris’s description of TR’s productivity that he featured Roosevelt in Deep Work.

Cal: There's really two factors to his productivity. One is this idea which I've written about more recently, including in Digital Minimalism, which is his belief that action is better than inaction. And that’s an interesting idea. A lot of people, especially today in a world of easy distraction, think what they really need is just time when they have nothing to do, they can just sit there and watch Netflix while swiping on their phone and just be bathed in passive distraction. They need that to recharge. They're exhausted. But TR is from this other school of thought, which says you're almost always better off, from a perspective of recharging your satisfaction, doing things, quality things, hard things all the time. You could be doing hard things or sleep, and that's it.

Throughout late 19th-century, early 20th-century thinkers, this is a common idea, that action all the time that's quality leaves you better off than trying to alternate between sort of pure passive rest and action. So I like that. But the other element is that he really believed in this formula that I've been writing about for years, which is what you produce is a function of the time you spend times your intensity of focus. And so TR's hack was "Let me take the intensity of focus piece of that equation and really pump it up as high as possible. If I can do that, then I can really minimize the time spent piece and get a lot of things accomplished."

We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsor.

 

Morris wrote that Roosevelt “plotted every day with the methodism of a Wesleyan minister,” and there’s no better example of that than a schedule of one of his days from the campaign trail in 1900. While incumbent presidential candidate William McKinley largely stayed away from the campaign trail, vice presidential candidate Roosevelt was crisscrossing the country.

The schedule itself is a testament to his boundless energy, but so are the statistics of that campaign season: According to Morris, Roosevelt, by November, had made “673 speeches in 567 towns in 24 states; he had traveled 21,209 miles and spoken an average of 20,000 words a day to 3 million people.”

One day on the trail, his schedule went like this:

  • 7:00 a.m. Breakfast
  • 7:30 a.m. A speech
  • 8:00 a.m. Reading a historical work
  • 9:00 a.m. A speech
  • 10:00 a.m. Dictating letters
  • 11:00 a.m. Discussing Montana mines
  • 11:30 a.m. A speech
  • 12:00 p.m. Reading an ornithological work
  • 12:30 p.m. A speech
  • 1:00 p.m. Lunch
  • 1:30 p.m. A speech
  • 2:30 p.m. Reading [Scottish novelist] Sir Walter Scott
  • 3:00 p.m. Answering telegrams
  • 3:45 p.m. A speech
  • 4:00 p.m. Meeting the press
  • 4:30 p.m. Reading
  • 5:00 p.m. A speech
  • 6:00 p.m. Reading
  • 7:00 p.m. Supper
  • 8-10 p.m. Speaking
  • 11:00 p.m. Reading alone in his [train] car
  • 12:00 a.m. To bed

It’s enough to make you want to take a nap.

Erin: He had a long history of basically having these really regimented days. Is that something that you think contributed to his ability to get a lot done?

Cal: I think it absolutely did. A lot of people, especially today, when they're thinking about their personal productivity, they think in terms of tasks. You know, what do I want to get done today? Where's my to-do list? Maybe I'm going to do the most-important-task-of-the-day system, where I choose one thing I really want to get done.

But something I consistently discover is that high achievers are often echoing the Roosevelt approach, which is "I want to actually allocate my attention," which means when you look at a particular day, you're not making a task list; you're blocking off your hours. What am I doing during this half hour? What am I doing during these three hours? You have so much attention to give in a day; you're trying to find the optimal allocation.

They also think about this on higher scales. What am I doing this week? Oh, Wednesday is the day that I'm going to have a lot of downtime in the morning, so that's when I'm going to really get after this project.

And so that idea of thinking about "I have, whatever it is—12 hours of attention to allocate in a day, some of those hours are going to be higher intensity than others, depending on where they fall; how do I get the biggest return on that attention?" That's an incredibly powerful productivity hack. It's one that I've been preaching, and I was influenced in that, in particular, by that approach of TR.

We know he was even doing that with his leisure, which I find interesting. When he's at Oyster Bay, when he's at his house on the Long Island Sound, he had pretty structured approaches to: I'm going to go rowing. I'm going to row across the sound, then we're going to play these games with the cousins, then we're going to read or whatever. Even at his leisure, he was allocating his attention as well.

Erin: So how does TR compare to other highly productive or successful people in history?

Cal: So he has that, as we talked about before, that manic energy, that need to always be doing things, that distrust of passive relaxation. That's pretty common. I mean, you see that a lot, let's say, in the business world in high achievers. That's certainly a definitive trait of, let's say, like Elon Musk or Bill Gates, for example. These are people who had this restless drive. "I’ve got do something. I’ve got to do something else. I don't trust passive time. I don't trust recharging," I mean, often to the detriment of their health.

That type of thing is common. Once you get to a certain level of productivity, like you're running ... two companies at the same time, or you're running the country at the same time that you're writing books. That's how they get there. You can't get there without being highly intentional about your time.

Roosevelt’s level of activity didn’t let up when he was in the White House. This might be best exemplified by a project created by archivist Chloe Elder, who, in the summer of 2017, was between masters degrees and doing a remote internship at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Every day, she’d clock in and go through material piece by piece adding metadata. A lot of the documents Elder was cataloging were letters written during Roosevelt’s presidency.

Chloe: There's something about being plopped down right in the middle of someone's correspondence. It's immediate. It's often very intimate.

As she was working, Elder began to notice a pattern.

Chloe: I kept seeing this one sort of standard reply from TR's secretary. And it would be something along the lines of, "Thank you very much for your letter, or your invitation, but President Roosevelt is far too busy to respond personally, or far too busy to attend the event, or make a speech, or read your story that you've submitted to him." And I just wanted to see, well how busy was he?

So she decided to create a calendar—something that would allow her to visualize just what a week in the life of President Roosevelt looked like. She began searching through the digitized archives at the Center, as well as his desk diaries, which he kept every day. Eventually, she zeroed in on a week where Roosevelt was sitting for a portrait by John Singer Sargent.

Chloe: TR would only pose for half an hour a day, after lunch, and it was apparently very hard to get him to sit still and not be rushing off somewhere else.

Erin: Classic TR.

After gathering all of the data and crunching the numbers, a picture began to emerge, and that picture was action-packed. According to the calendar Elder created, sometimes TR would hold up to eight meetings in an hour, meaning that if they were all equal in length, they would have been a mere 7.5 minutes each.

But even for TR, life doesn’t neatly fit into such tidy chunks.

Chloe: Some of the meetings do look like they're really quick, it says to pay respects. So that sounds like a brief sort of introduction. But then there are other meetings, and you could maybe guess what was going on if you also look at what was happening politically at the time, or looking at his letters. But a lot of it is still a bit of a mystery.

And on top of his busy schedule, he was sending letter after letter after letter.

Chloe: How many letters did he write that week? I'd have to count up, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25 ... I mean, a lot of letters that week. I saw he regularly wrote more letters than he received on any given day, really. In his lifetime he wrote over 150,000 letters.

Erin: I'm not president of the United States and I struggle to return an email.

Chloe: Right?

This is probably a good place for a break. We’ll be right back.

 

In addition to his many meetings and his epic commitment to correspondence, TR was also reading around a book a day and making time to be active.

Roosevelt played tennis, though he was never photographed in his tennis whites. He boxed, and when he couldn’t do that anymore, he took up jiu-jitsu. He swam—nude—in the Potomac. And he regularly dragged diplomats to Rock Creek Park to take a brisk walk or maybe scale a cliff.

As one such diplomat later recalled of a jaunt in the park, “He … made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand. His great delight is rock climbing, which is my weak point. I disgraced myself completely, and my arms and shoulders are still stiff with dragging myself up by roots and ledges. At one place I fairly stuck, and could not get over the top till he caught me by the collar and hauled at me.… He did almost all the talking, to my great relief, for I had no breath to spare.”

After he left the White House, TR’s ability to get a lot done in very little time loomed large. His successor, William Howard Taft, bemoaned, “I would give anything in the world if I had the ability to clear away work as Roosevelt did.” Me too, Will. Me too.

Erin: I often say that TR just makes me feel really tired, because it's like, "How?”

Cal: So the key factor seems to be this internal engine that gives him such a burst of energy that he has to be doing things throughout the day, and I've never seen someone focus it more intensely than he did. I'm also in awe. I wish I had maybe, what, 30 percent of his energy. I'd probably be 200 percent more productive.

Erin: He didn't have many of the distractions that we have today. Do we think that he would be as productive if he had a smartphone, for example, or the internet?

Cal: I don't know. On the one hand, he clearly had this huge energy and a huge drive to intensely do things and to produce things, so he might've been a figure that was just completely dismissive of "I don't need passive entertainment. I don't need to sit. This is not valuable enough. I don't want to sit here tweeting. I want to write a book," right. So he might've been completely dismissive of it.

On the other hand, he was highly curious and really attracted to new information. When you're talking about the early 20th century, what could you do? You could have smart people to the White House. You could read books. They were inherently very focused activities. We might see a TR that was so entranced by all these different rabbit holes he could go down, that instead of writing the book on naval history, he would be watching YouTube videos about knot-tying or something like that.

And if that latter thing is true, then that begs the question, how many potential TRs, at least in terms of productive output, leadership, and impact, are we losing? Because that huge energy and curiosity, "I need to do things, I need to act, I need to produce things," I mean, is that being sacked by an attention economy engine that is more roaming and finely tuned than we've ever had before in history. That's the pessimistic view—[that] we've been losing potential TRs because of it.

But I don't know. I tend to think he wants to produce. He wants to think big thoughts. He wants to produce interesting things. He wants to make big changes. He probably would not be a big user of Twitter. That would be my guess.

If you, like me, are wondering where Roosevelt found the energy to get so much done, one clue might be in his coffee intake. He was said to drink up to a gallon of coffee a day, and according to his son Ted, his mug was less like a regular coffee mug and “more in the nature of a bathtub.” He put up to seven lumps of sugar in each cup, too.

But according to Elder, that might not be Roosevelt’s ultimate hack.

Erin: So what do you think the rest of us can learn about how to be productive from TR's approach to his schedule?

Chloe: Well I wouldn't recommend the gallon of coffee a day. But I think he found what worked for him as far as being very productive all the time. And he seemed to thrive in that sort of environment. TR wasn't used to sitting still for more than half hour, and his MO was just to keep going and keep moving. And he was steadfast in that way of doing things, and I think that really worked for him. Just to find out what works best and run with it.

And when Newport thinks about how we can all be a little more like TR, he thinks of a quote from an interview Steve Martin did with Charlie Rose.

Cal: Charlie Rose had asked him, "What's your advice to aspiring entertainers?" And Steve Martin said, "Well, the advice I give them, which is never what they want to hear, but the advice I give them is be so good you can't be ignored. If you do that, good things will come." But TR, I think, really embodied that as well. He didn't just want to do things; he wanted to do things really well. He always wanted to be so good you couldn't ignore him. He was always driven to do things at a really high level of quality, which sounds obvious, but I think it's really different than a lot of our instincts today, especially in a world of sort of attention-economy media, as well as digital communication, where we also have this hustle culture, which is just be busy, right, do lots of things. Email lots of people. Have lots of coffees. Do a lot of things on social media. Just be kind of in the mix and crushing it and hustling and all this, and that'll somehow alchemize into some sort of success.

And I think TR represented a counterpoint to that, which is busyness by itself means nothing, hustling by itself means nothing. Things that you produce, things that you have shipped that are so good that it's hard for people to ignore, that's the foundation for interesting impact. I love the way that he embodied that. Busyness for busyness' sake was not a value. Intensity toward things that really mattered or might have a real impact was something he cared about. I think there's probably a lot to learn from that today.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson.

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan.

This show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Cal Newport and Chloe Elder.

To learn more about this episode, check out mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

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Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

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This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

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Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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History Vs. Bonus Episode: The Statue

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

One thing that happens when you make a Theodore Roosevelt-themed podcast is that whenever there’s TR-related news, you get a ton of messages about it. Which is exactly what happened to me when news broke that the American Museum of Natural History had asked for the equestrian statue of TR that stands outside its Central Park West entrance to be removed.

The request comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Statues of historical figures, including those of the Confederacy and monuments dedicated to figures who owned or sold enslaved people, are being defaced, removed, or pulled down entirely—and not just here in the States, but all around the world as well.

Although the museum’s request to remove the statue—which features TR on horseback, flanked on the ground by one Native American and one African figure—was made in light of the current movement, this particular statue of TR has been controversial for a very long time. In 1971, activists dumped a can of red paint on Roosevelt’s head in what a paper at that time called “the latest incident against the Roosevelt statue.” In 1987, former New York City parks commissioner Gordon Davis said he would support the statue being blasted away from where it stood—“unless,” he noted, “Roosevelt got off and walked with them.” Beginning in 2016, activists have protested the statue by organizing marches, covering it with a parachute, and splashing red paint on the base.

Removing the statue was considered as recently as 2017. The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers—which was, according to a report issued in January 2018 [PDF], “committed to a process of historical reckoning, a nuanced understanding of the complicated histories we have inherited”—was split about what to do with the statue.

Ultimately, the city decided to keep the statue where it was, and asked the museum to add context to the work—which the museum did in its exhibit “Addressing the Statue.” We touched briefly on the statue and on the exhibit in a larger discussion of Roosevelt’s views on race in the episode “History Vs. TR.”

Why was the city involved in the decision, you ask? Because even though many associate the statue directly with the museum thanks to its location, Roosevelt’s own history with the institution, and things like the Night at the Museum movies, it’s actually part of a public memorial to Roosevelt located on public land.

While some have issues with the statue because of Roosevelt himself, the museum has said that its request to move it isn’t about Roosevelt but rather because of the statue’s composition and what it implies.

So, in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to talk about the statue—why it’s there, what the artists intended, and why it’s viewed as controversial today. And we’ll dive into Roosevelt’s own views on legacy.

The statue’s story begins in 1920, when the New York State Legislature established the Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Nine years later, construction began on a memorial within the museum that, according to the prospectus of the competition, should “express Roosevelt’s life as a nature lover, naturalist, explorer, and author of works of natural history.”

The memorial may have ended up at AMNH because of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was then both president of the museum and the head of the New York State Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Osborn had also known Roosevelt—who contributed specimens to the museum, and whose father was one of the founding members—personally.

The memorial was designed by architect John Russell Pope and included the museum’s Central Park West entrance, its Theodore Roosevelt rotunda, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. In 1925, the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned to become a part of that larger memorial.

In 1928, Pope wrote that the statue would sit on a granite pedestal “bearing an equestrian statue of Roosevelt with two accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African. This heroic group … will symbolize the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator.”

Sculptor James Earle Fraser—who had created, among other things, a bust of Roosevelt, a statue of Ben Franklin, and the Buffalo nickel—was chosen to create the sculpture, which was based on a statue by Andrea del Verrocchio.

The statue was completed in 1939 and unveiled in 1940. Fraser said that the figures beside the former president “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” The figures have no names, and are below, and trail behind, Roosevelt.

So, we’ve talked about what the artists intended when they created the statue. Now, let’s talk about how the statue is viewed today.

Because a white man is ahead of and above an Indigenous American person and an African person, many see a clear picture of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. Others see a monument to colonialism and conquest.

Not only that, but the unnamed figures seem to be a hodgepodge of stereotypes and poor research. The Native American figure appears to be a Plains Indian, but it’s a generic and stereotypical rendering. According to the museum’s exhibit about the statue, the shield on the African figure appears to be based on the Maasai people, whom Roosevelt met during his time in East Africa. But the museum explains that “the hairstyle and facial scarification on the figure do not accurately reflect Maasai traditions,” and the cloth draped around the body is more akin to a Greek or Roman sculpture.

In 1999, James Loewen wrote in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong that “some authorities claim the flanked figures are ‘guides’ or ‘continents,’ but visitors without such foreknowledge internalize the monument without even thinking about it, as a declaration of white supremacy. When the statue went up the museum was openly racist.”

At that time, the museum had strong ties to eugenics. Under Osborn’s tenure, two conferences about eugenics were held there. Roosevelt himself also supported certain aspects of eugenics, especially later in his life.

Now … about TR’s quote-unquote “friendliness to all races.” If you listened to the “History Vs. TR” episode of this podcast, you’ll remember just how complicated and sometimes contradictory TR’s views on race were. But simply put, TR held white supremacist and racist views that were shaped by his childhood, the books he read, his education, and his correspondence with scientists. Roosevelt developed a theory of the stages of civilization, a racial hierarchy that put the white, English-speaking man on top.

According to historian William S. Walker in Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Fraser’s statue is basically a visual representation of the prevalent thinking about race at the time—a “troubling hierarchy of human groups that places whites above Indigenous peoples and other people of color on a universal scale of human civilization,” he writes. “The statue’s symbolism corresponds with overtly racist statements Roosevelt made in his writings … and actions he took, such as his wrongful condemnation and punishment of Black soldiers after the Brownsville affair in 1906. Moreover, the racial imagery of Fraser’s statue matches the dominant paternalistic attitudes that many whites, including Roosevelt, displayed toward people of color in the early 20th century.”

We’ve covered a lot of the frankly horrible things Roosevelt said about other races in previous episodes of the podcast, but right now, I want to look at just a few examples of what he said about Black people, to show just how contradictory his thinking could be.

The first is from remarks he made in February 1905: “Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law. As a people striving to shape our actions in accordance with the great law of righteousness we cannot afford to take part in or be indifferent to the oppression or maltreatment of any man who, against crushing disadvantages, has by his own industry, energy, self-respect, and perseverance struggled upward to a position which would entitle him to the respect of his fellows, if only his skin were of a different hue."

Sounds pretty good, right? But. In 1906, Roosevelt wrote in a letter to Owen Wister that Black people “as a race and as a mass … are altogether inferior to the whites.” And in 1916, he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge, “I believe that the great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage.” Extending them that right, he said, could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”

Historian Thomas Dyer breaks down TR’s thoughts on a number of races in depth in his book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, and if you want more information than I’ll ever be able to deliver here, you should definitely pick it up.

Dyer notes that while Roosevelt didn’t support segregation or disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and while he championed specific Black individuals, like Minnie Cox, there’s no question that Roosevelt felt that Black people as a whole were inferior to white people. And he believed it was the white man’s job to help the Black man become as civilized as the white man—a process that he believed would take an extremely long time.

However, according to Dyer, Roosevelt shouldn’t be lumped in with the deeply racist politicians of the Deep South, but instead was “associated with the group of theorists who promoted the vision of racial equipotentiality and with those politicians who publicly deplored the oppression of American Blacks yet opposed ‘social equality,’” Dyer writes. “Thus, although Roosevelt may have been a moderating force in an age of high racism, he nevertheless harbored strong feelings about the inferiority of Blacks, feelings which suggest the pervasiveness of racism and the harsh character of racial ‘moderation’ in turn-of-the-century America.”

Though these may have been prevalent views at the time, and while one could try and justify Roosevelt’s racist views by saying that he was a product of his time, there were plenty of people at that time, like Jane Addams and William English Walling, who did not agree with these views, who were much more progressive on this particular issue than Roosevelt was.

We’ll be right back.

 

Right around the time the museum’s “Addressing the Statue” exhibit went up in July 2019, I spoke with David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American Archaeology, Division of Anthropology at AMNH. Here’s what he had to say about the statue and the exhibit:

David Hurst Thomas: It was put up by the state of New York, memorializing a governor who went on to become a president. Our entire western facade is dedicated to the career of Theodore Roosevelt. And as you walk along there, you know, there are sculptures, there are all sorts of things, but the standalone one of Roosevelt on the horse with the African and the Native American walking along sent one message in the 1930s when it was put up and it sends a different message today to many people. So we're trying to come to grips with that. What are the different points of view here? What does that tell us about where we were then and where we are now?

In the exhibit, the museum grappled with what it called Roosevelt’s “troubling views on race” and its “own imperfect history,” saying that “Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue.”

In a recent statement, the museum said it was proud of the exhibition, “which helped advance our and the public’s understanding of the statue and its history and promoted dialogue about important issues of race and cultural representation, but in the current moment, it is abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient. While the statue is owned by the city, the museum recognizes the importance of taking a position at this time. We believe that the statue should no longer remain and have requested that it be moved.”

Theodore Roosevelt IV, TR’s great-grandson and a museum trustee, supports the statue’s removal, as does New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who said in a statement that "the city supports the museum's request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue."

It hasn’t yet been decided when the statue will be removed, or where it will go. And the museum isn’t completely cutting ties with TR. Instead, it will name its Hall of Biodiversity for Roosevelt “in honor of [his] role as a leading conservationist.”

It’s possible that Roosevelt would have preferred this memorialization to any statue. Michael Cullinane, the historian and author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost who I interviewed for this podcast, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post that “Theodore Roosevelt never wanted a statue. Long before he died, he left strict instructions to his wife and children that no likeness of himself—equestrian or otherwise—appear in stone or bronze. He even fought a memorial group that sought to preserve his birthplace in New York City. … As a historian Roosevelt knew that the past necessarily gets rewritten. He anticipated an ever-changing legacy.”

Clay Jenkinson, who I interviewed for several episodes, also emphasizes this point in a new book of essays he co-edited, called Theodore Roosevelt, Naturalist in the Arena. He points out that, in 1910, when North Dakotans wanted to erect a statue to TR, Roosevelt suggested that a pioneer or pioneer family would be more appropriate.

And in 1916, Roosevelt wrote a letter against building monuments to the dead, saying, “There is an occasional great public servant to whom it is well to raise a monument; really not for the man himself, but for what he typified. A monument to Lincoln or Farragut is really a great symbolic statue to commemorate such qualities as valor and patriotism and love of mankind, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the right … As for the rest of us who, with failures and shortcomings, but according to our lights, have striven to lead decent lives, if any friends of ours wish to commemorate us after death the way to do it is by some expression of good deeds to those who are still living. Surely a dead man or woman, who is a good man or woman, would wish to feel that his or her taking away had become an occasion for real service for the betterment of mankind, rather than to feel that a meaningless pile of stone, no matter how beautiful, had been erected with his or her name upon it in an enclosure crowded with similar piles of stone—for such a tomb or mausoleum often bears chief reference not to the worth, but to the wealth of the one who is dead.” In fact, after TR’s own death, Jenkinson notes that “his family was lukewarm, sometimes outright negative, about commemorative statues.”

That’s not to say he was against being honored altogether. Jenkinson notes that Roosevelt was thrilled when, in 1911, a dam in Arizona was named after him. “I do not know if it is of any consequence to a man whether he has a monument: I know it is of mighty little consequence whether he has a statue after he is dead,” Roosevelt said. “If there could be any monument which would appeal to any man, surely it is this. You could not have done anything which would have pleased and touched me more than to name this great dam, this reservoir site, after me.”

“The unmistakable sense one gets from reading Roosevelt on this subject is that he wanted his historical memory to be tied to civic, even civilizational achievement,” Jenkinson writes, “and that the giant cyclopean dam in the Arizona desert—named in his honor for his vision, his Americanism, his legislative mastery, and his love of the American West—appealed to him as the right way to pay tribute to his life and work."

If the Theodore Roosevelt Facebook group I’m in is any indication, opinions about the statue’s removal are heated. To be frank, most people in there are quite angry. But I, for one, think it could be a good thing.

Hear me out. Though I’m fascinated by TR, it’s probably clear by now that he was not without his flaws. He was obsessed with his image and wasn’t above asking his friends to gloss over the facts to paint his life and his accomplishments in the best light. He felt he knew what was right and did not often want to admit when he’d been wrong. He could be as bitter and as nasty as he could be kind. And his views on race ranged from deeply paternalistic to openly racist. But understanding those views is important.

As historian and assistant professor at the University of Virginia Justene Hill Edwards said when I interviewed her:

Dr. Justene Hill Edwards: We live in a country, that from the very beginning, has been polarized along issues of race. And so, yes, it is important to understand our public figures and political figures' perspectives on race because it's such an important part, in my mind, of what it means to be American, thinking about these questions because it's an indelible part of the American story. It would be like not understanding, you know, the Civil War, or the American Revolution, or our participation in World War I or II.

Like many historical figures, TR was a person—an incredibly complex person. He did both good things and bad things, and those things should be considered together. Here’s Edwards again:

Edwards: He did amazing things for idealizing and realizing the beauty of America's natural landscapes, right, for ideas of conservation, that's really important. And we don't have to denigrate that legacy with his more problematic legacy on race. And so I think it's important to view historical figures as they were. They're complex people with complex inner-workings of their lives, and it's just important to understand that human complexity.

In order to even get close to a full picture of TR, we need to consider all of the sides of him rather than picking the parts that support the vision of him that we prefer. History, like TR, is complicated. I think the statue’s removal spurs us to grapple with all of that, as well as with America’s own racist history, and that’s important. Which is why I hope that, even if the statue will one day be gone, AMNH will keep its exhibit about the work around so visitors can learn from it for decades to come.

As Cullinane wrote, the statue “indicates nothing of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. Rather, it symbolizes the least appealing aspect of his natural history philosophy.” I think Cullinane nailed it when he said, “If we honor complex figures, we should make sure we do so in ways that emphasize their enduring contributions, not their worst failures.”

As Jenkinson points out, TR’s legacy isn’t in a single statue—in fact, it’s all around us. “Theodore Roosevelt’s monumental footprint can be found in nearly every state in America,” Jenkinson writes. “While some of it is appropriately visible … still more is quietly enshrined in the U.S. Navy, in the National Park Service, in the modern identity of the American presidency, and in countless landscapes, parks, and forests across the Western Hemisphere. No other president has such a legacy. No other president even comes close.”

I’ll leave you with something TR expressed to Cecil Spring Rice in 1905, on the occasion of his Secretary of State John Hays’s death: “It is a good thing to die in the harness at the zenith of one’s fame, with the consciousness of having lived a long, honorable, and useful life,” he wrote. “After we are dead, it will make not the slightest difference whether men speak well or ill of us. But in the days and hours before dying it must be pleasant to feel that you have done your part as a man and have not yet been thrown aside as useless, and that your children and children’s children, in short all those that are dearest to you, have just cause for pride in your actions.”

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking and additional research by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website atmentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.